The Race Club, a provider of advanced swimming technique training, camps, analysis and on-line coaching for athletes of all ages and ability, has excelled greatly with Expert Coach, Devin Murphy. Devin, who began with The Race Club June 1st, came from Pipeline Swimming in Tampa, Florida where he coached several Junior National and Junior Olympic qualifiers as well as High School State Champions and the Bosnian National Record Holder in the 50 and 100 Freestyle. Prior to his times as a club coach, Devin was the Head Coach of Malone University and the Assistant Coach for Saint Leo University where he helped coach several NCAA All – Americans. Devin enjoys expanding his knowledge through working with the coaches and clients of The Race Club. He will be leading the Thanksgiving Islamorada camp along with Tripp Montgomery and Richard Hall. Devin Murphy will coach the Holiday camp, December 17th – January 2nd in Islamorada, along with Richard Hall.
The Race Club was responsible for training 53 Olympic swimmers that won 23 Olympic medals over 4 successive Olympic Games from 1996 to 2008. Since then, they have shared their knowledge and expertise by teaching swimming technique and training to swimmers and triathletes of all ages and abilities from around the world attending their camps or private instruction. The Race Club offers the most advanced technology available for improving swimming skills.
“From the word go, Devin has embodied The Race Club scientific principles of swimming technique and the values of what we teach in swimming and life.” says Gary Hall Sr., co-founder and Director of The Race Club. “Our Race Club family of clients has embraced him as their own. They are the ones that validate to us how great of a technique coach Devin is.”
Devin Murphy will be filmed as Race Club coach in our upcoming film production in January. Stay tuned for new videos to be released later in 2017 starring coach Devin Murphy.
Devin Murphy is based in The Race Club’s Islamorada, Florida location, although he travels to conduct clinics. Race Club coaches also teach our methodologies to clients through private instruction and individual online consultation via Skype or FaceTime. The Race Club utilizes Founders Park Pool and Jacobs Aquatics Center to conduct private sessions and our Florida Swim Camps.
High Octane Freestyle Part III: Training
The 50-meter sprint primarily involves two of the three energy systems we have available to use. Stored energy and anaerobic energy production are the two principal ways in which we delivery ATP to our muscles for this short, all-out burst of speed. However, at the very end of the 50-meter race, when most are either won or lost, the aerobic energy system begins to kick in. Therefore, aerobic swim training also plays a role in the 50-meter races.
All three energy systems have the capacity to change or adapt to the environment when they are stressed in that environment over time. That simply means to improve the anaerobic systems, one must train with a method that stresses those systems. The same goes for the aerobic system.
The stored energy supply (ATP and creatine phosphate) with maximal exertion will last about 8-10 seconds. I am not certain how much more available storage of this source of energy can be developed by stressing that system (alactic training), or by ingesting creatine, which is controversial, but it can change. Alactic swim training is done by repeated burst maximal efforts of 8-10 seconds so as not to require anaerobic production of ATP, followed by enough recovery time to restore the stored energy supply. That time is typically around 30 seconds or so.
Developing the other anaerobic energy system, the production of ATP anaerobically (anaerobic glycolysis), which predominates the energy supply between 10 seconds up to around a minute of maximal effort, comes from what is called lactate training. This type of training includes repeated maximal effort sets of longer than 10 seconds up to one minute or so with enough recovery time so as not to overwork the aerobic system. That rest period is typically 1 to 3 minutes or more, depending on the duration of the maximal effort. This part of the anaerobic system is not improved by increasing the production rate of ATP, which is the same in trained or untrained muscles, but rather by improving the ability to buffer lactate. The release of a free hydrogen ion as a byproduct of anaerobic glycolysis results in the lowering of the pH of the body. Lactate training improves the ability of the muscle cell to remove the free hydrogen ion. The human body has a very low tolerance for changes in pH (acidification or alkalization) and if the body becomes too acidic, muscle contraction begins to diminish significantly. Athletes know this feeling all too well as the proverbial piano on the back.
The quickest and easiest way for the human to increase the pH and restore it to more neutrality is by increasing the respiratory rate, blowing off more carbon dioxide, or so-called oxygen debt. That is why swimmers do not feel the need to breathe much at the beginning of the race, but as the race progresses and the pH lowers, the swimmer cannot get enough oxygen (or blow off enough CO2).
Since the aerobic energy system (aerobic respiration or oxidative phosphorylation) comes into play at the end of the 50 meters, sprinters must also develop this system to some degree. Too much of the training required to develop this system is detrimental to the sprinter, since it often results in a degradation of good sprint technique and can shift the composition of the muscles toward an increase in slow twitch fibers used in the endurance events. Typically, sprinters will devote the earliest part of the season to developing a stronger aerobic system and the middle and end of the season toward building the anaerobic systems.
While all three of these energy systems can be improved, depending on the type of training we do, the fact is that the muscle mass and composition have a lot to do with the success or lack of success of a sprinter. The predominance of fast twitch fibers results in the ability to generate much more power than with slow twitch fibers. These types of fibers do not recover as quickly as the slow twitch variety, so sprinters cannot sustain a high speed for very long. All swimmers also have a certain number of muscle fibers that sit on the fence. They can be converted to faster twitch, resulting in more power, or slower twitch, resulting in a faster recovery rate, depending on which way the swimmer trains. Anaerobic training shifts them toward the fast side, while aerobic training shifts them toward the slow side.
Swimming is unique in that it presents a paradoxical relationship between muscle mass and speed. Because of the extraordinarily sensitive relationship between a swimmer’s morphology (build) and frontal drag, bigger does not always mean faster. In fact, in races beyond 50 meters, bigger, even if it also means stronger, often results in slower performances. Strength training in swimming remains one of the most challenging and controversial subjects because of this unique paradox.
Finally, because of the significant contribution of the kick to a swimmer’s speed, there are exceptional sprinters that do not necessarily have the expected fast twitch muscle composition, yet manage to go very fast. My son, Gary Jr, was a good example of a swimmer that did not have a great vertical leap, but still managed to win a couple of Olympic gold medals in the 50 meter freestyle. His kicking speed was incredibly fast.
In conclusion, if it is your goal to become a better sprinter, no matter what anatomical or physiological cards you were dealt, first, learn to use a sprinter’s high-octane technique. Second, train to develop the anaerobic systems, but do not completely neglect the aerobic system. You need all three. Third, build swim-specific strength outside of the pool, but don’t get too bulky. Fourth, work on developing a faster kick, where you likely have the most to gain.
If you need help in any of these areas, come visit us at The Race Club. We’d love to help you train smarter and swim faster.
Yours in swimming,
Read High Octane Freestyle Part II of III
High Octane Freestyle Part II of III
Virtually all of elite sprinters for the 50 Freestyle use shoulder-driven freestyle technique. Shoulder-driven freestyle, as opposed to hip-driven or hybrid freestyle, requires that the swimmer gets the hand into the propulsion phase as soon as possible after entering the water. In other words, there is no delay of the hand out in front before it begins pushing backward. The result is a higher RPM or stroke rate.
In the sprinters’ world, RPM matters. When a swimmer goes from hip-driven to shoulder-driven, he basically changes the technique of using his hand (and arm) from an airplane wing and paddle to using it as a propeller. With propellers, higher RPM generally means more speed. Stroke rates of elite sprinters in the 50 meter event range from around 120 strokes per minute (cycle time of 1 second) to around 150 strokes per minute (cycle time of .8 seconds). RPM is not the only thing that matters, however.
The propulsion of a swimmer comes from both the hands and the feet. While all elite sprinters have very fast kicks, the total contribution of a sprinter’s overall speed from the kick and the pull remains controversial. Elite sprinters can pull 50 freestyle faster than they can kick it on the surface (by a few seconds), but from that one cannot necessarily conclude that the pull contributes more to the overall speed than the kick. While there is clearly more propulsion coming from the arm pull, there is also more frontal drag from this motion than with the kicking motion. Also, the measured pulling speed has the benefit of the coupling motions, while the kicking speed (with a board) does not.
Regardless, since the contributions of pull and kick to body speed are likely to be pretty close to equal in the sprints, the point is that the kick had better be fast. A few years ago, I trained a Race Club member that was trying to reach a goal time of 23.0 for the 50-meter freestyle. His best time had been 24.5. In six months, he improved his kick time from 50 seconds for 50 meters (1 m/sec) to 38 seconds (1.32 m/sec). His sprint time improved to 23.2 seconds…all due to a faster kick.
At The Race Club we have a saying that when it comes to the pulling motion, ‘frontal drag trumps power’. However, that is not so in the 50 freestyle sprint. The deeper elbow pulling motion puts the arm in a biomechanically stronger position for propulsion, compared to the high elbow pull. It also causes more frontal drag from the forward motion of the upper arm. In any event longer than 50 meters, the additional frontal drag caused by the deeper elbow will wear the swimmer down. In the sprint for a short duration, it is more manageable. The pulling motion of the elite sprinters ranges from nearly a straight arm down (Anthony Ervin) to an elbow that is about half way from the surface to the straight down pull (Manaudou, Adrian). Either is a compromise in position from the lower drag, high elbow pulling motion of the elite distance swimmers.
The fourth common feature of all elite sprinters is the effective use of coupling motions; body rotation and arm recovery. Perhaps the least understood and appreciated of all four qualities, these coupling motions are an important way to augment propulsion and swim faster. Both motions are circular. The amount of kinetic energy that is generated from each of these motions is determined by the mass (of upper body or arm), the square of the radius (width of the body and length of the arm) and the square of the angular velocity of each (the rotating body or recovering arm speed). The more kinetic energy in those motions that is coupled with the kick or pull, the greater the propulsion that is created.
Since there is more mass in the upper body than the arm, this motion is likely the more important of the two motions. We cannot change our upper body mass nor our body’s radius, but we can change the rotational speed of our body. By doing so, we can have a huge impact on our propulsion due to the exponential relationship of angular velocity.
With the arm recovery motion, we can change the radius of the arm by bending or straightening the elbow. We can also change the angular velocity by recovering the arm at a higher speed. Both have an exponential relationship with the amount of kinetic energy produced in that motion. In other words, if I double the radius of my arm by going from completely bent to straight, I quadruple the kinetic energy in the motion. If I double the angular velocity of the recovering arm, I quadruple the kinetic energy in that motion. If I do both, I increase the kinetic energy from a slow, bent-arm recovery to a fast, straight-arm recovery by 16 times!
Through the power of coupling motions, we see nearly all of the elite sprinters increase speed by rotating the shoulders quickly from one side to the other and by recovering their arms quickly with them either straight or nearly straight. Those two motions require a lot of work, but significantly increase the propulsion of both the pull and kick.
Sprinting fast requires that you have certain anatomical and physiological tools, as well as good technique. In the next and final article, we will describe ways in which your training can help you develop better tools for sprinting.
Yours in swimming,
High Octane Freestyle
While one could argue that there is no true sprint in the sport of swimming, the 50-meter events come the closest. For the 20 seconds or so duration of this event, a swimmer relies mostly on his stored energy systems (available Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) and Creatine Phosphate) and his anaerobic energy system. The aerobic system may come into play, but only in the final few seconds of the event, providing perhaps 5% of the total energy requirements. In freestyle, where a swimmer has the option of breathing or not breathing, that becomes important, as most of the gains or losses tend to occur in the last 5 meters to the wall.
When doing more continuous maximal exertion exercise (over 30 seconds), a swimmer uses all three energy systems to provide enough ATP for the muscles to sustain contractions. In any swimming event over 50 meters, swimmers rely heavily on developing a robust aerobic energy system. The longer the maximum effort event, the more dependent the swimmer becomes on the aerobic energy system to produce ATP. For the 50 meter events, swimmers must rely more on power, technique, an efficient anaerobic energy system and in the final few meters, for those that care to take a breath, an efficient aerobic system.
Because of the unique requirements of the 50-meter sprint, the training for this event needs to be highly focused on developing the anaerobic systems (alactic and lactate training). The technique for sprints must also be focused more on developing more propulsion (power) compared to the longer events, where frontal drag and building a better aerobic system are more of a concern.
Not everyone is genetically gifted to become a great sprinter. Having a higher percentage of fast twitch fibers and a fast kick are two of the most important components of a fast sprinter. Yet there is no mold for a sprinter, either. There may be advantages to height, for example, but two of the fastest male swimmers in the world today, Caleb Dressel and Vlad Morozov, are just 6 feet tall, considerably shorter than most of the other great sprinters.
Whether gifted for sprinting or not, everyone can get better at sprinting by training appropriately and by using the right techniques. The freestyle technique for the 50-meter sprint should be significantly different than the technique for the 100 meters and up. I call this sprint technique High Octane Freestyle because it demands more energy, yet produces more power. Technique is not only event specific, but also swimmer specific. Each swimmer must learn to best play the hand that he or she has been dealt. In other words, the sprint technique should be adapted to the anatomical and physiological conditions of the swimmer.
There are four characteristics of the technique that all great sprint freestylers seem to have in common. First, they are all shoulder driven. That means that the stroke rate is fast and the majority of the body rotation is coming from the shoulder rather than the hip. Second, their kicking speed is fast. The kick speed is more important in the sprint than in any other event. Third, they opt for a more powerful pulling motion than distance swimmers. That means that the pulling motion is deeper than with the distance swimmers. Fourth, they use the two coupling motions of freestyle, body rotation and arm recovery, extremely well.
In the next article, we will discuss all four of these common techniques of great sprinters in more detail, with suggestions on how you can improve in all of them. In the final article, we will discuss the types of training in and out of the pool that will help you improve your sprinting.
Yours in swimming,
Read High Octane Freestyle Part III of III
Come join us for our January San Diego Swim Camp in Coronado, CA! Below are the details of each session. You can sign up for as many sessions as you’d like, but you can see why we encourage you to sign up for all 8 sessions and the 4 enhanced sessions. Lots of Great material to cover! These sessions are for any swimmer that wants to swim faster. We have had swimmers and triathletes from age 7- 86 ranging in abilities from beginner wanting to learn a flip turn or a stroke, to Olympians. Sign up and we hope you’ll have a great time!
Each session involves out of water time and in water time. Don’t worry! We coach swimmers of all ages & abilities to help them swim faster.
January 13th 7am-9am – Science of Swimming – Reducing Frontal Drag – Freestyle technique
January 13th 1pm-3pm – Race Club mobility routine – Increasing Propulsion – Freestyle technique
January 14th 8am-10am – Nutrition – Conforming to the Law of Inertia – Freestyle
January 14th 3pm-5pm – Yoga – Progression to a Fast Backstroke
January 15th 8am-10am – Strength training – Key Points to Improve Breaststroke
January 15th 3pm-5pm – Starts – Race Club Circuit Swim Strength Training
January 16th 7am-9am – Mental training – Developing an Easier and Faster Butterfly
January 16th 1pm-3pm – Race Practice and Strategy
January 13th 9am-10am Breathing Technique and Breathing Patterns
January 14th 10am-11am Dolphin Kick Technique and Drills
January 15th 10am-11am Back to Breast Transition Turn
January 16th 9am-10am Starts and Turns
-All 8 camp sessions plus 4 enhanced sessions = $1300 ($300 savings if you register by December 12th, 2016)
-Each camp session is $150
-Each enhanced session is $100
Somewhere along the line of learning freestyle and backstroke technique, many swimmers have been told to enter their hands delicately in the water. As the arm recovers over the top of the water, just before entering the water, the swimmer will slow the velocity of the hand and arm down to avoid crashing them into the water. I call this the ‘modern toilet seat’ syndrome, because in swimming freestyle and backstroke, the hand slows down just like a modern toilet seat with a spring on it to keep it from falling down hard. The rationale of this technique is to avoid getting air bubbles surrounding the hand during the underwater pull, which results in a loss of propulsion.
While it is true that reducing the number of bubbles on the hand will increase propulsion, laying the hand down softly in the water or sliding the hand forward in the water in front of the head are bad ideas. First, I am not convinced that either of these techniques will reduce the number of air bubbles around the hand. It seems that has more to do with a swimmer’s proprioceptive feel for the water than the speed of the hand at entry. I have watched countless elite swimmers aggressively throw their hands into the water with tremendous speed and force, yet somehow they manage to avoid getting a lot of air trapped behind their hands. I have also seen many poor swimmers enter their hands delicately in the water and create a virtual stream of air bubbles following their hand on the pulling motion. Second, slowing the hand at entry will slow the stroke rate, a key component to fast swimming freestyle and backstroke.
Third, and what is most important, is that by slowing the hand at entry, swimmers are losing out on a great opportunity to increase their speed. In freestyle and backstroke, there are two important coupling motions that augment the propulsive forces from our hands and feet (pull and kick); the arm recovery and the body rotation. Of the two, because the mass of the body is significantly greater than the arm, the body rotation is more important, but the two motions are linked to one another. Arm recovery couples with the underwater pull only when using shoulder-driven or hybrid freestyle. Coupling motions only work when acting during the propulsion or while the propulsion is still in effect (shortly after the propulsion takes place). The degree to which the coupling motions work depends on their kinetic energy; the speed of the body rotation (angular velocity) and the speed and length of the recovering arm (angular velocity and radius). In other words, the faster the body rotates and the faster and longer the arm recovers, the more powerful the underwater pull becomes.
As with so many things in life, the same holds true for coupling motions. Timing is everything. To maximize the coupling effect, one needs to see the greatest kinetic energy occur in the coupling motion precisely during the strongest force in the propulsion. For backstroke and shoulder driven freestyle, that occurs in the last 25% of the arm recovery, or in other words, right before the hand enters the water. To achieve that, a swimmer should accelerate the hand and arm as they approach the water, not slow them down.
Further, the speed of the hand at entry is also linked to the body rotation speed during this critical time. If one slows the hand down at entry, then the body rotation also slows. If one accelerates the hand at entry, the body snaps quickly to the other side. The speed of the recovering arm during that final 25% of the recovering motion therefore controls two key components to gaining speed, arm recovery and body rotation.
I was struck at the Olympic Trials watching Ryan Murphy and Jacob Pebley throw their hands backward with great force during the last quarter of the recovery in their 1-2 finish in the 200 backstroke. Kudos to Dave Durden for teaching them that great technique….or to each of them for figuring it out. Either way, it worked out well for them.
One of my favorite drills we teach at The Race Club using this aggressive hand entry/body rotation technique is the six-kick, one-stroke drill with fins on. Regardless of whether one uses a low octane or high octane recovery (bent or straight arm), one can feel the increase in power that is generated by the fast final entry of the hand and arm, creating a quick rotation of the body.
My advice is to forget about the air bubbles. Avoid the ‘modern toilet seat’ syndrome. Focus on coupling with your arm, hand and body by accelerating the recovering hand to entry and see what happens.
Yours in swimming,
Watch Swimisode: Freestyle Swim Drills: 6 Kicks 1 Stroke
Watch Swimisode: Fast Backstroke Swim Technique
While the velocity meter is not new technology, at The Race Club, we have spent much of the past year understanding how to better use it in order to understand how you can swim faster. We spend an average of ten hours performing and analyzing each test. We have learned a lot.
First, technique in the sport of swimming is extremely important; more than we had imagined. With water being some 800 times denser than air, the laws of motion that affect our speed in water come into play at much slower speeds than with sports in air. Significant deceleration can occur very quickly, within hundredths of seconds, with very small adverse changes in our body’s position or shape. The result of high deceleration is slower speed and a greater fluctuation of speed, an inefficient way of swimming. Flow dynamics are also very important and affect our propulsion.
Second, we have learned that by measuring acceleration and deceleration, in addition to velocity, we can more precisely identify poor technique. Peak deceleration, for example, measures the mistake(s) in real time, while trough velocity occurs later as a result of the deceleration. Even though the loss of velocity may occur just fractions of a second after the peak deceleration occurs, for example, the poor technique that resulted in that change may already be gone. By identifying the time where maximum deceleration takes place, we can then more easily find the bad technique that caused it. When looking at moments of peak acceleration, we can also better identify the propulsive forces that resulted at that moment in the higher acceleration and resultant increase in velocity.
Another parameter that we have learned to use is the difference between peak and trough velocities (∆PT). To our knowledge, this data had never been analyzed in swimmers before. The level of peak velocity is a fairly close indicator of the amount of propulsion a swimmer can create on a given cycle. Trough velocities correlate more closely with the amount of frontal drag occurring between propulsive efforts for a given stroke rate or cycle time. The ∆PT is a better measure of efficiency, as the greater the change in velocity that occurs with the swimmer, the more energy required for the swimmer to average a certain speed (law of inertia).
In freestyle and backstroke, we can identify peak and trough velocities for right arm pulls and left arm pulls. In breaststroke, we find peak and trough velocities for the pull and the kick. In butterfly, we find peak and trough velocities for each of the two down kicks, one of which occurs during the underwater pull and the other during the hand entry. After just a few seconds of swimming, we can measure several peaks and troughs for each stroke. From that data, we derive ∆PT measurements for each stroke.
The analysis involves not only measuring the magnitudes of peaks and troughs, but also comparing symmetry (right arm vs left arm) and consistency (does the peak or trough vary much from stroke to stroke or over time). One of the challenges of this analysis is having a better understanding of what is normal or expected for a given age or ability of a swimmer.
For example, in the ∆PT velocity measurement for freestyle, the majority of better distance swimmers seem to keep under .5 m/sec. With elite swimmers using sprint technique, however, we find the ∆PT goes higher (.75 m/sec or higher) from the increase in propulsion and in frontal drag caused by the deeper, stronger pulling motion. In backstroke, the ∆PT’s are lower, likely due to the changes in flow dynamics of the kick on the back compared to the stomach. We have found in backstroke a ∆PT less than .35 m/sec appears to be desirable. For the same reason, the ∆PT is less in dolphin kick under water on the back than it is on the stomach. In flutter kick, a ∆PT of less than .25 m/sec is desirable.
The higher ∆PT measurements are usually accompanied by higher amounts of deceleration and/or acceleration. While we understand the importance of having a lower ∆PT, particularly on events over 50 meters, we also have found that the highest peak deceleration points are the most important single parameter to help us find poor technique. In nearly every case, we feel confident in being able to identify the cause of the deceleration. Often, there is more than one cause.
When going over our VM data with our Race Club members, it is one thing to show a swimmer video of his dropped elbow, elevated head position, overly bent knee on a kick or a hanging foot in breaststroke or fly, and explain that you think it is bad technique. It is quite another to show a swimmer that as a result of that mistake, the acceleration went from 10 m/sec² (increasing speed) to a deceleration of -10m/sec² (losing speed) in less than .06 seconds. That is not an unusual scenario.
If nothing else, each swimmer doing the VM study has a new respect for the extreme sensitivity of swimming technique. I call swimming a sport of millimeters, tenths of seconds and degrees. Drop the elbow a few millimeters, for example, and the frontal drag goes way up. If a swimmer is a tenth of second late in initiating the push back from the breaststroke kick or in performing the second hard down kick in fly, the swimmer misses the coupling effect of the body motions and loses out on the additional propulsion. For every degree of external rotation of the hip, there may be 5-10 percent more propulsion from the breaststroke kick with the same amount of effort. In swimming, little things matter.
There is no mercy in the water; very little margin of error. In my experience, the Velocity Meter test provides the most important information we have available to help you swim faster. I hope that you will come to Islamorada or to Coronado and allow us to test you.
Yours in swimming,
Part V: Five Nuances of a Great Start
While arguably the most important part of the start is the speed of the underwater dolphin kick once the swimmer is submerged, this series pertains to the technique from the starter’s command to take your mark up until the body is submerged.
We have discussed the two different basic techniques of track starts, weight forward and weight back, and the importance of coupling motions in improving the outcome of both techniques. However, there are five more important techniques to a great start that are often overlooked and that deserve discussion. Those are; the position of the stance, the position of the back foot, the hyper-streamline of the arms, the hip lift and the pointing of the feet.
Position of the Stance
The question of from where a swimmer should start his position, once the command from the starter to take the mark occurs, is controversial. I recall painfully watching the start of the 100 m freestyle in the 2004 Olympic Trials, when my son, Gary Jr., began from a full standing position, only to hear the beep go off before he had reached down and grabbed the front of the block. He was the last one off the block and broke out well behind the others. Unfortunately, the error may have cost him a position on the Olympic team for the 100 m freestyle.
With swimmers using the weight back start, it is particularly important to establish a stance with the hands relatively close to the front of the block, as it takes even more time to shift the weight to the back foot. Most of the elite swimmers of the world today will position their feet on the block, then bend down with the arms relaxed and hands dangling near the front of the block, or loosely holding on to it, in order to avoid the mishap of pulling backwards when the beep happens. The challenge is that a muscle that remains too long in a stretched position loses its potential for contraction. A swimmer does not want to remain in the cocked position any more than a baseball player wants to remain in a position with the bat cocked for too long of a time before the pitch. In other words, if a swimmer takes his mark and gets into the stretched, cocked position too early and remains there too long, the muscles will not contract as strongly, nor perform as well.
On the other extreme, it is not worth the risk, particularly with a weight back start, to begin the stance from a standing position, as it takes too long to get into the cocked position. Therefore, although this theory is unproven, the best position may be somewhere in the middle.
Whether using weight forward or back, I like to position the swimmer’s stance with the arms hanging down, but with the hands just below the knees, rather than near the block. First, this is a more comfortable position to be in than hanging all the way down, while waiting for the starter’s command. Second, it seems to position the swimmer’s hands close enough to the front of the block in order to bend down the rest of the way, grab the front of the block, and shift the weight backward without staying in that stretched position too long nor arriving so late as to miss the beep. The position seems to be the best compromise between the two extremes.
The Position of the Back Foot
Whether there is a back foot wedge on the starting block or not, it is important to not be flat footed with the back foot. In other words, the foot should rest on the ball of the foot with the heel an inch or so off of the plate. The propulsion from the feet is derived from the front of the foot, not the back. With the heel slightly off the wedge, at the sound of the beep, the heel should drop down slightly then spring forward, producing greater power than if held down the entire time. Similar to doing a standing jump, the leg will produce more power with some downward motion first, rather than being held still prior to the start. If the heel is too far off of the wedge, it doesn’t seem to do as well.
Hyper Streamline at Entry
The hyper streamline position is defined as having the chin on the chest, arms placed behind the head (as far as possible) squeezed together as closely as possible, pulled forward as far as possible, with the hands overlapped, aligned with the forearms, wrist over wrist, and with the fingers squeezed together. While there is some controversy among coaches as to which streamline position produces the least amount of frontal drag, it is interesting that virtually every elite swimmer enters the water in this same hyper streamlined position.
Since the frontal drag forces are proportional to the square of the swimmer’s speed, and that the speed of all swimmers at entry is approximately 15 mph, some 3 times faster than world record speed in the 50 m sprint, it is extremely important that the swimmer assumes the position of lowest drag coefficient at this critical time. The fact that nearly all of the elite swimmers are in the same hyper streamline position at the entry tends to support that this position causes the least frontal drag.
One concern of some swimmers and coaches is whether there is enough time to extend the head forward as the swimmer leaves the block and still return it to the flexed, chin-down position before entering the water. Since the head lift should be done quickly in order to produce as much kinetic energy from this motion, there is plenty of time to fully extend the neck and return the chin back to the chest before entry.
The Hip Lift
One of the most often overlooked techniques of a great start is the hip lift, right before entry. Lifting the hip slightly (perhaps 20 degrees), articulating the upper body forward (or downward), enables the swimmer to enter the water without going too deep and without causing too much splash. The amount of splash is roughly correlated with the drag caused at entry. The greater the splash, the more drag or resistance, and the more the swimmer will decelerate.
Without lifting the hip, or by keeping the body straight, the body will go too deep on the start. To avoid this, swimmer’s often bend the knees at entry. Either way, it will result in a slower start. After the hip lift occurs before entry, the upper body should enter the water at a 20-30 degree angle with the surface and the legs should be nearly parallel to the surface. For breaststroke starts, where the swimmer can go deeper, slightly more articulation of the upper body, or hip lift, is acceptable.
One can practice this motion on the deck of the pool by standing upright in the hyper streamlined position, then pushing the hips backward and the upper body forward to reach a 20-30 degree angle. This simple motion will enable swimmers to enter the water cleanly at the right depth and retain more speed.
Pointing the feet
Perhaps the most common mistake I see on the start is failure to point the feet at entry. In a recent study in Germany, measuring passive drag forces of a swimmer, they found that the relaxed feet (hanging down) causes 40% more frontal drag than with the feet pointed backward. That was significantly more increase in frontal drag than any other bad body position that they tested. When a swimmer relaxes the feet off of the start, they will be hanging downward. If the swimmer does not make the effort to point them backward just before entry, the hanging feet will cause a huge splash and an increase in frontal drag. Even if everything else on the start is perfect, the hanging feet at entry will ‘kill’ a good start.
At The Race Club, before we even begin to teach the other techniques of a great start, we always start from the side of the pool with the swimmer practicing entry with a hyper streamlined front end and pointed feet at the back end. Both are critical to getting a fast start.
If you want to develop a better start, there is no substitute for practicing lots of starts. Don’t wait until a few days before competition to refine your technique. A great start requires many subtle but significant motions and positions. It takes time to develop and master each of these techniques to the point where you will be able to perform them well during the competition. Practice makes for perfection.
I also recommend that you have an experienced start coach and/or a slow-motion video of your dive, so that you can analyze each aspect of those that we have discussed. At the Race Club, we spend a considerable amount of time helping swimmers improve their starts, as it is so valuable, particularly in the sprints.
It is a bit disconcerting to start your race well behind your competitors. Let us help you get your races off on the right foot…or left foot, whichever is stronger.
Yours in swimming,
Part IV: Coupling Motions, Leg Motion
The third coupling motion is also important and that is the back leg lift. Elite swimmers, and particularly sprinters that depend on a great start, will lift the back foot quickly with a straight leg high into the air, creating a separation between the two feet in mid air of two or three feet. By the time the swimmer enters the water, the two feet are brought back together in order to align them at entry. The fast upward motion of this technique is done with a straight leg (lengthen the radius) in order to maximize the kinetic energy. Have you ever thought about how your back leg on your track start contributes to your propulsion?
Some of the coupling motions of the start take place after the propulsive forces have occurred. The head lift is occurring during the earliest part of the start, simultaneously with all three forces, back foot, arms and front foot. The back leg lift occurs after the arms and back foot have created their force, yet during the force from the front foot. The arm motion, head lift and back leg lift begin while the forces are taking place and end after all three forces are completed. In order for a coupling motion to be effective, the motion must take place either during the propulsive force or while the effect of that propulsion is occurring. Consider a long jumper, for example, who continues to swing the arms and legs in mid air, after the propulsive force of the foot has launched him into mid air.
As in all four swimming strokes, one must learn to use the three coupling motions effectively to get the very best swimming track start. Whether using weight forward or backward, these three motions can profoundly impact the distance one goes off the starting block.
Yours in swimming,
Part III: Coupling Motions, The Arm Recovery
The most powerful coupling motion of the dive is with the arms. The coupling energy of the arms is not only proportional to the square of the speed of the arm motion, but also to the square of the radius or length of the arm. A swimmer has the ability to change the speed and the length of the arm on the start and, because of the exponential relationship of both factors with kinetic energy, each has the ability to significantly change the outcome of the start. The following are the most common motions seen with the arms on the start.
- Arm swing forward. This motion is most commonly seen on the weight forward start. With this technique, the arms swing forward from the front of the block, either straight or with a slight bend, while the head is lifted to reach the streamline position. This technique provides the least amount of coupling energy.
- Arm/hand elevation. This technique can be used with either the weight forward or backward start. Rather than simply moving forward, the arms and hands move upward at the start, with greater bend in the elbow. Because the path of the hands and arms is longer with this technique, there is more velocity and therefore, more coupling energy with this motion, even though the length of the arm is reduced from the first motion.
- Arms pulled to the swimmer’s side. This technique is not seen often at the elite level, but more commonly among younger swimmers. It is effective only with the weight back start. With this technique, the swimmer pulls on the front of the block with the arms and quickly moves the fully extended arm to his side, while the head is lifted. Once at the side, the arms swing more slowly back out front into the streamline position. Although this technique creates a lot of kinetic energy with the arms at the beginning of the start, stopping the motion of the arms at the side reduces that energy to zero.
- Butterfly recovery on the start. This technique is the most powerful of all on the start because there is nearly a continuous fast motion of the arms from the starter’s beep until the swimmer’s entry into the water. It can only be done effectively with a weight back start. With this technique, the swimmer pulls on the front of the block (or bar) and, with the back arched, elevates the hands and arms above the head as they move forward into the streamline, very similar to a butterfly recovery motion. This circuitous motion can be done with either a slightly bent arm or a straight arm, with the longer straight arm creating even more coupling energy. The risk of this start technique is that the arms are coming together in front with such speed and energy that one can easily overshoot the hands, particularly with the straight arm, and end up with the arms crossed at entry, a disastrous complication. This technique also requires that the swimmer has extraordinary shoulder flexibility (extension backward).
Brad Tandy in the lane 8 in the finals of the 50 Freestyle in the Rio Olympics uses an over extended butterfly arm recovery on start, maximizing all coupling motion energy with head lift, arm swing and back leg lift. Which arm recovery do you use on your swimming start?
Yours in Swimming,